Christian Heilmann

Web Design should be more Hardcore

Tuesday, May 17th, 2005 at 5:52 pm

I like web sites that are like Bad Religion songs: Short, Fast, Simple but full of great messages. I hate having to find navigation, content or wade through long sentences and unnecessary marketing blurbs to find what I am looking for.

Following some recent discussions on various forums and mailing lists, I got the impression that we still haven’t grasped that developing for the web is working in a no control environment.

We simply don’t know what the audience is and how they are going to experience what we have to offer. We don’t know what their abilities are, or their technical environment.

This ambiguity on the receiving end is nothing new. If you ever wrote something for radio you’ll know that:

  • The first sentence needs to say When, Where and Who.
  • Every sentence needs to be an entity in itself and makes sense without the others
  • Try to avoid nested sentences.

These principles have become a standard, mainly because hardly any listener sits in front of the radio following every word you say. It is a secondary media, people do other things while listening to the radio.

The same applies to the web to a certain extent. I hardly know anyone who has one browser instance or tab open exclusively. A faster connection also means more browser windows or downloads that need attention from time to time. A lot of surfers also have a messenger of some sorts open that interferes with our attempts at getting their attention.

Assuming that what we do will get the complete attention of the visitor is presumptuous – if not flat out ridiculous.

And yet there is hardly any mention of the content when developers ask others for their input on what they think of their products.

  • There are tons of “cool web site” awards and forums where we pat each others’ backs how fancy our designs are.
  • A new CSS stunt will get much more attention than a clever way of presenting complex data in an understandable way.
  • The 32432th implementation of a multi level navigation using CSS only is more important than properly labeling a complex form or a helping the distracted user to finish a multi step process.

Many problems that developers have are based on the wrong assumption that every user will be as interested in our designs as we are ourselves.

I keep getting confused by requests like:

  • “How can I make this page look the same in MSIE and FireFox, Opera and Safari?” Why should you? Make sure the content is available in all of them, and if you cannot test in them, stick to web standards and hope for the best. Nobody but other designers will check the page in different browsers to see differences. Check on the newest browsers to see if you are safe for the future and on IE6, as sadly enough this will be your audience.
  • “I want my buttons to look like links” You can also put a wig on a pig, but it will make a lousy Prom Date.
  • “I want to make sure nobody can download my images” Why do you put them online then?
  • “I want my own scrollbars” Are you also ready to tackle all the usability issues that come with them? Are you ready to put as much research in as the browser / OS designer?
  • “I want to enable the back button and the bookmark functionality on my Flash or DHTML web site” Why did you take that functionality away from the start?

In essence, I am lazy. It is tough enough keeping content up to date, why should I bother to take on more responsibility? And that is what you do. Every time you change the experience of the user – by making something look like it shouldn’t – you give the message that you know better and you did it for the visitors’ good – or to feed your ego. What do you want to be known as? A narcissist or someone who delivered a half finished job – cause that is what you will do.

Both The Ramones and The Sex Pistols made a lot of money with three riffs and a miniscule amount of talent. They just went for it, maybe we should do the same.
Rather than spending hours on details let’s get the baseline right and deal with the details once our fans know what to expect.

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